Paddling back in time on Lake Nicaragua
Clouds wrapped Volcan Concepcion in wispy puffs half a mile from where we rested, bobbing on the mild chop of Lake Nicaragua under grey skies.
Our guide, Noldan, eased into his kayak alongside us; a shove against the boat that transported us to the edge of the Istian River, and we were off. Moments later, we had disappeared into thick, green growth, surrounded by egrets, kingfishers and dozens of other birds lined up along the tiny estuary in search of breakfast.
Silence enveloped us as we quietly paddled, straining to see signs of life as we eased along. We needn’t have made the effort; here, wildlife appears in such abundance that each glance into the dense brush rewards a traveler with nature’s best.
A pure white Snowy Egret stands on spindly legs not 10 feet from where we paddle, unfazed by the interruption of three kayaks in the morning light.
“They don’t seem terribly afraid,” I remark.
“They love having their photos taken,” Noldan laughs.
The estuary winds through groves of thick brush, and Noldan shares information about an ecosystem that has been unchanged for centuries. We come upon three rotting wooden pilings in the middle of the water – what’s left of a bridge that, 100 years ago, provided the only access from one side of the island to the other during wet seasons.
These days, progress has brought paved roads along a good chunk of island, but such modernization falls away when travelers venture to Merida and beyond into the less inhabited, more genuine part of Ometepe. That’s where we’re staying, at Hotel Omaja, a stunning rustic getaway created by a former attorney from Nebraska who “came here for two years that has turned into 14.” This part of the island is populated by rustic shacks of locals and rocky, rutted roads that wind along the edge of the immense lake.
Everything seems to move at half pace here.
It’s that kind of place, where time falls away, hours become days become weeks and months as the island’s slow pace and sultry heat wreaks havoc with schedules and thoughts of civilization. The island’s code of living: smile, relax, have a coffee (or a cold cerveza) and enjoy.
And out here – in the slow moving waters of the estuary, teeming with wildlife and a world away from the pressures and demands of a workaday life – you get the feeling that nothing ever changes. The tree trunks bear signs of high waters that inconceivably run five feet deeper in rainy season than those we paddle. Turtles poke their heads from the depths for a peek at a passerby and then duck into the dark waters, beating a safe retreat.
Ahead, Noldan has stopped, and is gesturing into a dense thicket that runs into the dark waters.
“Alligator,” he exclaims.
We paddle close, and soon can see the ribbed tail of a small gator, perhaps four or five feet in length, dozing by the water’s edge. I paddle closer, eager to get a better look, and as the bow of my kayak edges within a foot of the beast’s tail it erupts in movement, flicks its tail, and is gone.
Howler monkeys begin to sound loudly as the skies turn darker and the wind rises. Their throaty growls resonate from the trees, across the waters and are absorbed by the jungle that rises behind us.
“I think we gonna get rain,” Noldan correctly predicts. Within seconds, we are being pelted by a gentle yet steady downfall that cools our backs but seems to cause the Howlers great concern.
“Getting their new fur coats wet,” I quip.
We paddle through thick growth that seems poised to choke the river and prevent passage. But Noldan finds a way and we continue, ducking beneath two enormous trees that overhang the river and barely allow enough room for passage.
Ahead, we see the end of the estuary, and watch as a kingfisher slowly extends its neck and then snatches a tiny fish from the water. It retreats to a bit of dense growth to eat, keeping one eye warily on us as we circle, watch and head back from where we came.
We paddle back through the estuary as the rain continues, realizing that the boat has departed, leaving us to paddle the few kilometers along Lake Nicaragua to return to base. It’s a happy inconvenience. I paddle ahead, watching curtains of rain race across the lake miles away, and pausing to watch the clouds wash over Concepcion, rising sharply in the distance.
Solitude and peace embrace me as I continue, a solo voyager on the broad expanse of one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. Paddling a kayak on a lake of 3,200 square miles reduces a human to a speck on the dark blue waters, and wholly insignificant.
On shore nearby, women wash laundry while children blissfully splash in the water. A farmer brings a pair of horses to the water for a drink; a fisherman ducks beneath the dark water for a cool dip, then continues retrieving his nets from the lake.
I ease past, a tiny blip on the horizon of this timeless, magical place of vast beauty, nature and wonder.
The rain eases and the sun returns as we near the place where we launched hours earlier, wet, a bit tired, and smilingly full of another abundant dose of nature’s incredible gifts.